Labour hold Newport West with reduced majority - thoughts

Last night Labour held Newport West with an 8pt lead over the Tories, down from 13pts in 2017.

The by-election was held following the death of Paul Flynn, who passed away on the 17th February, after a long illness involving rheumatoid arthritis.

Paul had represented the constituents of Newport West since 1987, and had served as Shadow Welsh Secretary and Shadow Leader of the House of Commons under Jeremy Corbyn.

The result is broadly in line with what national polling has been telling us, insofar as both Lab and Con are seeing similar falls in support to the advantage of UKIP and, to a lesser extent, the Lib Dems; the rest of the fall in the case of this by-election eaten up by the arrival of small/new parties.

This, nationally, bodes omens that are marginally worse for Labour than the Tories – an election campaign with the current pool of support would be easier for the Tories to squeeze than Labour. UKIP’s moderate increase, in both the polls and Newport, offers a potential struggle for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. How many voters, in fact, know Farage no longer leads UKIP? 

The latest figures from our poll tracker, as of 30th March

Though Labour saw a 12pt fall in support, on the topline, little has changed. Nationally speaking, if an election were held today the House of Commons would be not too dissimilar to that of 2017: a hung parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party.

As you were.


By-Election Previews: 4th April 2019

“All the right votes, but not necessarily in the right order”

Two by-elections on 4th April 2019, and it’s a Parliamentary Special this week on Andrew’s Previews:


Newport West

House of Commons; caused by the death of Labour MP Paul Flynn at the age of 84. He had served since 1987.

You’re not from Newport
You’ve probably never been there either
I’ll bet you a fiver
You’re not from Newport
You’ve probably never heard of Pillgwenlly
Or been to Liswerry
– Goldie Lookin’ Chain, You’re Not From Newport

Well, your columnist has been to Newport, and Pillgwenlly has previously featured in Andrew’s Previews. In fact I have fond memories of the place. The UK leg of the World Quizzing Championships was held in Newport one year in the 2000s, and during that day I beat off all comers to win the prestigious and mysogynistically-named “Last Man Standing” competition, a Fifteen-to-One-style quiz featuring the cream of the UK’s quiz community, including several current and future Eggheads and Chasers. And some random twentysomething who kept his head down while they were busy eliminating each other. The question which won me the quiz asked which band had recorded the album The Man Who, so in tribute to that here’s the most successful song from that album, Why Does It Always Rain On Me?

A question which may be asked often by visitors to Wales, whose weather tends towards the wet side. Goodness knows what the Romans thought about that climate when they got here, but it didn’t put them off. The Romans built a substantial fortress at Isca Augusta which was named after the River Usk, a tributary of the Severn, and the Legio II Augusta who garrisoned the place until the end of the third century. Extensive Roman remains can still be seen there today. Caerleon, as the place is now known, became one of the centres of the Kingdom of Gwent, the major port on the Usk estuary and a place of legends; the twelfth-century Bishop of St Asaph and noted historical fantasist Geoffrey of Monmouth placed Caerleon as the capital of King Arthur. That in turn inspired later literature: Tennyson wrote some of his Arthurian output while staying in Caerleon, while another Arthur associated with the place was the mystic and author Arthur Machen, who was born in Caerleon in 1863.

But Caerleon never became great again. The Norman invasion of Wales led to administration from far-away Monmouth, and rather than fortifying Caerleon the Normans built a castle further down the Usk estuary at Newport. The Welsh name of Newport, Casnewydd, refers to that “new castle”. The original Newport Castle, a motte-and-bailey structure of which nothing remains today, was replaced in the fourteenth century by an imposing stone castle on the riverbank, and in typical style a town grew up around it. The castle was sacked by Owain Glyndŵr’s supporters in 1402 and never fully recovered from the experience; but like Caerleon, Newport did well from trade on the river and became sufficiently important to be represented in Parliament, as one of the towns contained in the Monmouth District of Boroughs.

But the Industrial Revolution changed the area forever. In 1792 Parliament authorised the Monmouthshire Canal Navigation to link the coal and ironstone mines in the Valleys to the Usk estuary at Newport; opened from 1796 onwards, the canal was fantastically successful and put Newport firmly on the map. The profits from the canal financed the building of extensive docks in Newport, to counter the Severn’s large tidal range. Docks continued to be added for over a century, and by the outbreak of the First World War Newport was said to have the most extensive docks in the world. That system included the world’s largest lock; giving access to the South Dock Extension, that lock was 1,000 feet long and 100 feet wide.

Not all of those docks survive today; those that do are in the Pillgwenlly division which is one of the most ethnically diverse areas of Wales (it has a large population born in the Middle East, and makes the top 70 wards in England and Wales for “other” ethnic groups and the top 100 wards for long-term unemployment). In order to link the docks with areas across the river without affecting shipping traffic, one of the UK’s very few transporter bridges opened here in 1907; the Newport Transporter Bridge is still in operation today.

That trade needs people to run it, and Newport greatly expanded in population in the 1830s. With those immigrants predominantly coming from England and Ireland, the town became majority English-speaking for the first time; and tensions grew. In 1839 Newport town centre was the scene of the last armed rebellion in Great Britain, led by the Chartists. The 1838 People’s Charter was a petition calling for such radical ideas as universal suffrage by secret ballot and a salary for MPs; this did not go down well with the authorities, and the Chartist leader Henry Vincent had been locked up in Monmouth prison for his efforts. Things came to a head with a full-scale armed riot on 4 November 1839, in which up to 5,000 Chartists attacked Newport’s Westgate Hotel where some of their sympathisers were rumoured to be imprisoned. The Hotel was successfully defended by 60 soldiers and 500 special constables under the command of the Mayor of Newport Thomas Phillips (who was wounded), and the ringleaders of the Newport Rising were subsequently the last people in England and Wales to be sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Following public pressure, that sentence was commuted to transportation for life.

Newport’s docks may have been extensive, but they were in decline well before the Great Depression got going. Things perked up on the employment front after the Second World War, as in the 1960s the large Llanwern steelworks commenced operation. Also in that decade the Severn Bridge and the M4 joined Newport to the UK’s motorway network. This was a two-lane motorway which in the event didn’t have the capacity as built to handle the traffic which materialised, as the M4 handles not just local Newport traffic but also longer-distance connections to Cardiff, Swansea and beyond. The Severn Bridge was relieved in the 1990s with the construction of what’s now called the Prince of Wales Bridge, but the Newport Bypass is a problem. It had to be widened to three lanes each way virtually as soon as it was built; but the twisting alignment, steep gradients and closely-spaced junctions, the fact that it ploughs through densely-populated urban areas and the presence of the Brynglas tunnels – a two-lane bottleneck – make further improvements to the route impossible. For nearly three decades the politicians have been talking about relieving the Newport Bypass by building a second motorway to the south of Newport – generally known as the M4 relief road – but to date nothing has come of all this talk. The Welsh government had been expected to announce in the near future whether to go ahead with building the road, but that announcement has been delayed until after this by-election is over.

Llanwern steelworks is much-reduced these days, and the government has moved to fill the jobs gap by siting a number of public-sector organisations in Newport. The Office for National Statistics and the UK Intellectual Property Office are based here, the Passport Office has one of its centres here, and Newport was briefly the home of the UK register of political parties (this register was established in 1998 and thus predates the Electoral Commission; before the Commission took the register over it was administered by Companies House). Insurance is also a major economic sector, with Lloyds TSB’s insurance division and GoCompare having their head offices in Newport, while Admiral Insurance also have a large office next to the intercity railway station. Newport was put on the international map by hosting the 2010 Ryder Cup and the 2014 NATO summit, both of those events were held at the Celtic Manor resort. The town’s major cultural exports include the rap collective Goldie Lookin Chain.

Now you need a certain sense of humour to appreciate the GLC: many of their songs are far too unsafe for work for me to put videos of them here or even list their titles before the 9pm watershed, and the band have caused several sense-of-humour failures over the years. In 2005 the Welsh FA had to apologise after inviting the GLC to perform in advance of a Wales v England football match in Cardiff, in which set they dedicated their song Your Missus is a Nutter to David Beckham while his wife was in the audience. One wonders what the Office for National Statistics makes of the claim that “Gun crime statistics are sometimes misleading” in the GLC’s number 3 hit Gons Don’t Kill People, Rappers Do, while the lyric in the same song “Politicians are shamed and they haven’t got a clue” sounds like a prediction of 2019 but might have caused some tension when Rhys Hutchings got himself elected to Newport city council. Yes, the voters of Newport really did elect Rhys from GLC as a local councillor: he was on the Labour slate in the 2012 local elections, and served one term before retiring in 2017.

Newport has a long political tradition; as stated it was part of the Monmouth District of Boroughs from the sixteenth century, when Wales gained representation in Parliament for the first time. Legal action arising out of the 1680 election, when Monmouth tried to return an MP without involving the other boroughs, confirmed that the electors were the freemen of Monmouth, Newport and Usk. From 1715 onwards this was a pocket borough controlled by the Dukes of Beaufort, and it didn’t see a contested election from then until the Reform Act; the 1832 election, on the new franchise, returned Whig Benjamin Hall, who later became First Commissioner of Works and may have been the Ben after whom the bell Big Ben was named.

Hall was succeeded as MP for Monmouth Boroughs by another Whig, Reginald Blewitt, proprietor of the Monmouthshire Merlin newspaper, who took over as Mayor of Newport after Thomas Phillips’ injury in the 1839 Rising. Blewitt also built up the ironworks at Cwmbran, but financial trouble forced him to leave the Commons in 1852. The resulting by-election was gained for the Conservatives by Crawshay Bailey, a prominent industrialist whose name has been commemorated in song:

Crawshaw Bailey had an engine
It was always needin’ mendin’
And depending on its power
It could do four miles an hour
Did you ever saw
Did you ever saw
Did you ever saw
Such a funny thing before?

Nobody challenged Bailey’s re-election afterwards, and he served until the 1868 election when he retired. After that the Monmouth Boroughs developed into a key marginal which flipped frequently between the Conservatives and Liberals and where majorities were often small: in the 1880 election the Liberals’ Edward Carbutt defeated outgoing Conservative MP Thomas Cordes by a majority of 61 votes, and a rematch between Carbutt and Cordes five years later saw Carbutt re-elected by 2,932 votes to 2,921, a majority of eleven. The 1900 election was gained for the Conservatives by Frederick Rutherford Harris, who was subsequently unseated by the Election Court for campaign spending irregularities; the Tories held the resulting by-election in 1901 with a reduced majority of 343. In the 1906 Liberal landslide the Monmouth Boroughs elected Liberal candidate Lewis Haslam, a very wealthy man from the Bolton cotton-spinning industry.

Monmouthshire did well out of the 1918 redistribution, which increased its representation from four MPs to six. As part of that process the Monmouth District of Boroughs was dissolved and Newport became a constituency of its own, with the same boundaries as the Newport county borough. Lewis Haslam won the first election to the Newport constituency in 1918 as a Liberal endorsed by the coalition government; in was a sign of things to come, Labour candidate John William Bowen, chairman of the Union of Post Office Workers, came in second.

Lewis Haslam died in 1922 prompting a famous by-election which changed the course of history. This was a time when the Lloyd George Coalition government was under severe strain, and the Newport Conservatives had already broken ranks with the national party by selecting a candidate for the next general election, civil engineer and self-made man Reginald Clary. The Liberal candidate selection exposed the strains in the party, and eventually produced an anti-Coalition candidate in the form of William Moore, the Newport coroner. Labour re-selected John William Bowen. The major issues of the campaign included alcohol, with the Liberals and Labour in favour of the Licensing Bill and the Tories against. Press expectation was that the race was a genuine three-way marginal with Labour best placed to win on 18th October; but when the result was declared, at 2am on 19th October 1922, the Conservatives’ Clary had prevailed with 40% of the vote, to 34% for Labour and 26% for the Liberals.

Nine hours later, at 11am on 19th October 1922, at least 286 Conservative MPs met at the Carlton Club in London to decide whether the Coalition should continue. The Newport by-election result was seen in the meeting as a rejection of the Coalition by the voters, and the Conservative leader Austen Chamberlain had come under attack from his backbenches over its continuance. The meeting debated a resolution that the Conservatives should fight the next general election as an independent party. Chamberlain and former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour were against the resolution, while Stanley Baldwin and Andrew Bonar Law – who had decided to attend the meeting only at the last moment – were in favour. The vote was 187-87 in favour of the resolution, and the Coalition government fell. Austen Chamberlain resigned as Conservative party leader, David Lloyd George offered the government’s resignation that afternoon, and George V asked Bonar Law to form a new government. Bonar Law immediately went to the country, and the 1922 general election returned a Conservative majority. And you thought Brexit was dramatic.

Included in that Conservative majority was Reginald Clary, who would go on to have a long career as MP for Newport, including defeating Labour’s John William Bowen three more times. However, Clary was out of the Commons for the 1929-31 Parliament after being defeated by Labour’s James Walker, a trade unionist from the iron and steel industry and longtime Glasgow councillor. Walker lost his seat back to Clary in 1931 but returned to the Commons in 1935 as MP for Motherwell, representing that seat until January 1945 when he was killed in a road accident. The 1945 Motherwell by-election resulting from Walker’s death was another famous one, as Robert McIntyre became the first MP for the Scottish National Party.

Reginald Clary died just 12 days after James Walker, at the age of 62. The resulting Newport by-election on 17th May 1945 was a more sedate affair; the wartime truce was still in effect and new Conservative candidate Ronald Bell, a barrister who had fought the Caerphilly by-election in 1939, won rather narrowly against opposition only from the Independent Labour Party chairman Robert Edwards. But Bell was the shortest-serving MP for Newport; the 1945 general election was called less than a week later, and with normal politics resumed Bell lost heavily to Labour on 5th July. He did eventually get a long parliamentary career, representing South Buckinghamshire and later Beaconsfield from 1950 until his death in 1982, and was heavily active in the Monday Club. The 1982 by-election arising from Bell’s death was contested on the Labour side by a young man called Tony Blair – whatever happened to him? Answers on a postcard to the usual address.

The new Labour MP for Newport was Peter Freeman, who was managing director of his family’s tobacco factory in Cardiff. Ironically a non-smoker, Freeman had been a gifted sportsman in his youth and won the 1919 Welsh tennis championship; ten years later he was in parliament, having won the Brecon and Radnorshire constituency in the 1929 general election. (In those days the Brecon and Radnorshire seat included Brynmawr and other mining areas in the Heads of the Valleys, making it a lot more Labour-inclined than it is now.) Freeman had lost his seat in 1931 and had previously contested Newport in the 1935 election.

In 1950 two sitting MPs contested Newport, with Freeman seeking re-election against opposition from the Conservatives’ Ivor Thomas, a journalist and scientist who was outgoing MP for Keighley. Thomas had been elected for Labour in the 1942 Keighley by-election; he was a junior minister at the start of the Attlee administration, piloting the Civil Aviation Bill through Parliament and also serving in the Colonial Office, but then crossed the floor to the Conservatives. The Tories put him up for election in Newport (near his birthplace in Cwmbran), but Freeman saw Thomas out of the Commons without too much trouble. In the 1955 election Freeman also defeated future Tory MP (Cardiff North, 1959-66) and stockbroker Donald Box.

Peter Freeman died in 1956 at the age of 67. The resulting Newport by-election on 6th July had a very well-known defending Labour candidate. The socialist credentials of Sir Frank Soskice were impeccable: his father David Soskice was an exiled Russian revolutionary journalist, while he was also related through his mother to Ford Madox Brown, Ford Madox Ford and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. However, Soskice’ career was in the law; he had been called to the Bar in 1926. After service in the Second World War Soskice was elected as Labour MP for Birkenhead East in 1945 and served throughout the first Attlee administration as Solicitor General, for which he got his knighthood. Sir Frank had rotten luck with the Boundary Commission; his Birkenhead East seat was abolished in the 1950 redistribution and he lost re-election in Bebington that year. A by-election was quickly engineered in Sheffield Neepsend to allow Sir Frank to return to the Commons, and Attlee promoted him to Attorney General; but the Sheffield Neepsend constituency was itself abolished in the 1955 redistribution, leaving Sir Frank with no political home until the Newport vacancy turned up. Donald Cox returned as Conservative candidate for the by-election and Plaid Cymru contested the seat for the first time: their candidate was Emrys Roberts, who later served as general secretary of the party and was leader of Merthyr Tydfil council from 1976 to 1979. Unlike the previous two Newport by-elections, this one was not a game-changer: Sir Frank Soskice increased the Labour majority.

In the 1964 election Sir Frank Soskice easily defeated Tory candidate Peter Temple-Morris (who would go on to be a long-serving MP for Leominster, defecting to Labour during the 1997 Parliament) and was appointed Home Secretary in the new Wilson government. This is always a difficult position to hold and Sir Frank did not impress, with poor health adding to more difficulties with the Boundary Commission and a difficult passage for the Race Relations Act. In 1965 Wilson moved Sir Frank to his final Cabinet post as Lord Privy Seal. Soskice retired to the Lords in 1966, taking the title Lord Stow Hill after the steep road connecting Newport city centre to St Woolos Cathedral.

By new Newport was a safe Labour constituency and their new candidate Roy Hughes had no trouble taking over Sockice’ seat. Hughes had started his career down the pits in Monmouthshire at 15 while completing grammar school, and served in the Welch Regiment during the Second World War; after the war he had been a manager at Standard Motors in Coventry, a Coventry city councillor and a TGWU officer. He had a long Parliamentary career, retiring to the Lords at the 1997 election as Lord Islwyn.

Hughes’ constituency by then was Newport East; the 1983 redistribution had seen major changes in Wales and one of those was that Newport was divided into two seats. The dividing line is very intuitive: Newport West includes everything in Newport to the west of the River Usk, plus the Christchurch area and the Celtic Manor resort which for some reason are in the same electoral division as Caerleon. The constituency has had unchanged boundaries ever since.

It has not had unchanged political representation. The boundary changes diluted the Labour strength: the western half of Newport is weaker for Labour than the eastern half, and the seat also gained the Tory-voting villages on the coastal strip between Newport and Cardiff which had previously been a detached part of the Monmouth constituency. Nonetheless this was an open seat and a good Labour nomination to go for, and the nomination was won by Bryan Davies, secretary of the Parliamentary Labour Party. A former history teacher and lecturer, Davies had been MP for the London constituency of Enfield North from February 1974 but had lost his seat to the Conservatives in 1979. He was up against Tory candidate Mark Robinson. From a business and sporting family (his father John Robinson ran a paper and packaging company and had served as High Sheriff of Avon, his grandfather Sir Foster Robinson had been captain of the Gloucestershire cricket team), Robinson had made his career in international organisations, working for the United Nations for six years and for the Commonwealth for another six.

Robinson won the new seat, defeating Labour by 38% to 37% with 24% for the Liberals, a majority of 581 votes. That wasn’t the end of Davies’ political career though: he returned to the Commons for the 1992-97 term as MP for Oldham Central and Royton, and was later Government Deputy Chief Whip in the Lords from 2003 to 2010. Mark Robinson started his parliamentary career on the Foreign Affairs select committee before joining Government in 1985 in the Welsh Office. He lost his seat in 1987, but returned in the 1992-97 term as MP for Somerton and Frome.

Mark Robinson increased the Conservative vote in the 1987 general election; but Labour increased their vote by more and gained the seat. The new MP was Paul Flynn who had represented Newport West ever since. Flynn was born in Cardiff in 1935, one of five children; his father, a postman, died when Flynn was five years old. In 1955 he started work in the steel industry as a chemist; after being made redundant in 1983 he briefly became a broadcaster before finding work the following year as a researcher for Labour MEP Llew Smith. He was a Newport councillor from 1972 to 1981, a Gwent county councillor from 1974 to 1982, and had fought Denbigh in the October 1974 general election.

In office Flynn quickly joined the frontbenches as an opposition spokesman on health and social security; but he resigned from that position in 1990 and spent most of his Parliamentary career on the backbenches. Until 2016, that is, when Jeremy Corbyn briefly ran out of people who were prepared to serve under him in the Shadow Cabinet following the EU referendum result and a no-confidence vote supported by 80% of his MPs; Flynn joined the Shadow Cabinet for the first time in July 2016 as shadow Leader of the Commons and shadow Welsh secretary at the age of 81,. At the time, he was reported at the time to have been the oldest frontbencher since Gladstone. He returned to the backbenches in October that year.

Away from the Commons Flynn had served as chairman of the Broadcasting Council for Wales, and was a fluent Welsh speaker and member of the Gorsedd of Bards. He had written several books on television and politics and was also an early adopter of the internet, being one of the first MPs to communicate with his constituents by email. Flynn’s website was regularly voted as the best MP’s website.

Flynn had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for all his adult life, and in late 2018 announced that he was bed-bound and keen to retire from the Commons; however, he wished to avoid a by-election if possible. As a lifelong pro-European, he was keen to vote against the government’s withdrawal agreement and pledged to do so even if he had to be stretchered into the Commons; however, in the first Meaningful Vote on 15th January 2019 Flynn was the only MP (other than the Speaker, his deputies, the tellers and Sinn Féin, who all have excuses) who did not vote in the 202-432 defeat of the government. Flynn died a month later on 17th February 2019, aged 84. He had hoped that his epitaph would be a phrase originally used to describe him by the sketchwriter Simon Hoggart: “the thinking man’s Dennis Skinner”.

Paul Flynn had been re-elected in 2017 for an eighth term of office as the second-oldest MP after Skinner; Ann Clwyd, who turned 82 last month, now takes over that position. (The oldest Conservative MPs currently serving are Sir Bill Cash and Kenneth Clarke, both of whom are aged 78.) In June 2017 he had beaten the Conservatives by 52% to 39%, a majority of 5,658 votes, with no other candidates saving their deposit; that was an improvement on the 2015 and 2010 elections when his seat was marginal between Labour and the Conservatives.

Newport West has consistently returned Labour members to the Senedd in Cardiff. From 1999 to 2016 its AM was Dame Rosemary Butler, who served as the Welsh Government’s first education secretary from 1999 to 2000 and was the Senedd’s Presiding Officer from 2011 to 2016. In 2016 Dame Rosemary retired and handed over her seat to Jayne Bryant, who had been runner-up in the 2014 European Parliament election as the second-placed candidate on the Labour list for Wales. Butler’s majority had fallen to just 1,401 in the 2007 Assembly election, but Bryant had a healthier lead of 4,115 votes in the 2016 poll; she had 44% of the vote, to 29% for the Conservatives and 14% for UKIP.

By contrast, the results from the 2017 Newport council election (held five weeks before the snap general election) suggest that Labour have a fight on their hands to hold this seat. Across the twelve electoral divisions covered by the constituency Labour polled 36% of the vote, with the Conservatives close behind on 35% and a localist slate (the Newport Independents Party) polling 13% and carrying Bettws division. This is one of those cases where the seat count (16 councillors for Labour, nine Conservatives and four seats for the Newport Independents Party) is deceptive. On the other hand, Bettws is a very working-class area (it makes the top 75 wards in England and Wales for “semi-routine” occupations) so Labour can expect to do better there at parliamentary level. Hopefully this by-election will do better in the turnout stakes than the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in November 2012, when one of Bettws’ ballot boxes reportedly had no votes in it at all.

Flynn’s announcement last year that he intended to resign gave the local parties plenty of notice to select candidates, and Labour have had a defending candidate in place since January. She is Ruth Jones, a local resident, NHS physiotherapist and former president of the Welsh TUC who fought Monmouth in the 2015 and 2017 general elections.

The Tories have selected Matthew Evans, a former Mayor of Newport and leader of the Conservative group on Newport city council. He represents and lives in the affluent Allt-yr-yn division, and fought this constituency in the 2016 Welsh Assembly election.

UKIP will be looking to defend their third place from 2017 with a candidate who has, well, name recognition. Neil Hamilton was the Conservative MP for Tatton from 1983 to 1997, getting involved in all sorts of controversies and legal trouble (the failure of one libel action against the Guardian prompted that newspaper to fill their front page with a photograph of Hamilton headlined “A liar and a cheat”). After managing the deeply-impressive feat of losing the safest Tory seat in Cheshire at the 1997 general election, Hamilton had a brief career as a TV personality before finding a new political home in UKIP. In the 2016 Welsh Assembly elections Hamilton was elected from the UKIP list for the Mid and West Wales region, and from 2016 to 2018 he was leader of the UKIP group in the Senedd – although the statement of persons nominated for this by-election reveals that he lives in Wiltshire. This isn’t Hamilton’s first go at being elected to Parliament for a Gwent constituency: he was the Conservative candidate for Abertillery in the February 1974 general election. His description on the ballot paper is “UKIP Make Brexit Happen”, which was a gamble at the time his nomination went in (the deadline was 8th March) but would appear to have been vindicated by subsequent events.

Plaid Cymru have rarely troubled the scorers in Newport West; they have saved their deposit in only one of the Westminster elections since this seat was drawn up. In 1992 they fielded a joint candidate with the Green Party as part of an electoral pact in Gwent, to little discernible effect. Their candidate this time is Jonathan Clark, who has fought Monmouth five times at Westminster or Senedd level but lives in this constituency.

Fifth here in 2017 were the Liberal Democrats, who have selected Ryan Jones. A local resident, Mr Jones runs a construction business which employs 30 people in Newport.

The Greens were sixth and last in this constituency two years ago, and like UKIP they have selected a candidate with a national profile. Local resident Amelia Womack is deputy leader of the Green Party of England and Wales; she fought Camberwell and Peckham in the 2015 general election and Cardiff Central in the 2016 Assembly election, where she was top of the Green Party list in South Wales Central.

This being a parliamentary by-election, there are a lot of other also-rans. First of them alphabetically is June Davies who is the candidate for Renew, a centrist party firmly on the Remain side of the political divide. All the remaining candidates would appear to be Leavers in some form or another. Ian McLean is standing for the Social Democratic Party, which these days is a very different beast from the SDP founded by the Gang of Four all those years ago; the SDP of our time is a very anti-EU group. Hugh Nicklin is the candidate of the For Britain Movement. Richard Suchorzewski, who was runner-up behind Nigel Farage in the 2006 UKIP leadership election, is standing for the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party, and the Democrats and Veterans Party have selected Phillip Taylor who completes a ballot paper of eleven candidates.

So, how can we characterise this Newport by-election? Will it be like the one in 1922, which led to the fall of a government? Will it be like the one in 1945, which was reversed within weeks by a general election? Will it be like the one in 1956, which confirmed the status quo? Who knows. But I’ll finish this preview as I started it, with the GLC who wrote a tribute song to the late Paul Flynn MP; unlike most of their output it’s safe for work, and you can listen to it here.

Newport council divisions: Allt-yr-yn, Bettws, Caerleon, Gaer, Graig, Malpas, Marshfield, Pillgwenlly, Rogerstone, Shaftesbury, Stow Hill, Tredegar Park
ONS Travel to Work Area: Newport
Postcode districts: CF3, NP10, NP18, NP19, NP20

Jonathan Clark (PC)
June Davies (Renew)
Matthew Evans (C)
Neil Hamilton (UKIP)
Ruth Jones (Lab)
Ryan Jones (LD)
Ian McLean (SDP)
Hugh Nicklin (For Britain Movement)
Richard Suchorzewski (Abolish the Welsh Assembly)
Phillip Taylor (Democrats and Veterans)
Amelia Womack (Grn)

June 2017 result Lab 22723 C 17065 UKIP 1100 PC 1077 LD 976 Grn 497
May 2016 Welsh Assembly result Lab 12157 C 8042 UKIP 3842 PC 1645 LD 880 Grn 814 Ind 333 Cymru Sovereign 38
May 2015 result Lab 16633 C 13123 UKIP 6134 PC 1604 LD 1581 Grn 1272
May 2011 Welsh Assembly result Lab 12011 C 7791 PC 1626 LD 1586
May 2010 result Lab 16389 C 12845 LD 6587 NBP 1183 UKIP 1144 PC 1122 Grn 450
May 2007 Welsh Assembly result Lab 9582 C 8181 LD 2813 PC 2449 EDP 634
May 2005 result Lab 16021 C 10563 LD 6398 PC 1278 UKIP 848 Grn 540 Ind 84
May 2003 Welsh Assembly result Lab 10053 C 6301 LD 2094 PC 1678 UKIP 1102 Socialist Alliance 198
June 2001 result Lab 18489 C 9185 LD 4095 PC 2510 UKIP 506 BNP 278
May 1999 result Lab 11538 C 6828 PC 3053 LD 2820
May 1997 result Lab 24331 C 9794 LD 3907 Referendum Party 1199 PC 648 UKIP 321
April 1992 result Lab 24139 C 16360 LD 4296 PC/Grn 653
June 1987 result Lab 20887 C 18179 Lib 5903 PC 377
June 1983 result C 15948 Lab 15367 Lib 10163 PC 477


Wroxham

Norfolk county council; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Tom Garrod who had served since 2013.

A quick note on the only local council by-election taking place today. We’re in what’s sometimes called the capital of the Norfolk Broads, the village of Wroxham some miles to the north-east of Norwich; this is one of the more accessible parts of the Broads to outside visitors in that it still has a railway station, Hoveton and Wroxham on the Norwich-Sheringham line. The village anchors a county division which runs for some distance along the south bank of the River Bure, from Upton at the eastern end to the musically-named Great Hautbois at the northern end. The area was important in the Second World War as the home of RAF Coltishall, an airbase for fighter aircraft which operated until 2006; part of the RAF base is now occupied by HMP Bure, a prison mainly housing sex offenders.

Prisoners, of course, are not eligible to vote. Those who do vote in this division tend to vote Conservative; this is a safe Tory division where Tom Garrod beat the Liberal Democrat candidate 59-20 in the 2017 Norfolk county council elections. We are just four weeks away from the next elections for the local district council, Broadland; in the 2015 Broadland elections the Conservatives won all the district council seats within the division, and a by-election in Coltishall ward on the snap general election day in 2017 was an easy Conservative hold.

Defending for the Tories is Fran Whymark, who has been a district councillor for the Wroxham ward of Broadland council since winning a by-election in 2014. The Lib Dems have reselected Stephen Heard, who finished as runner-up here in 2017 as a Lib Dem and in 2013 as an independent candidate. Also standing are Julia Wheeler for Labour and Jan Davis for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Broadland
Broadland council wards: Blofield with South Walsham (part: Hemblington, South Walsham, Upton with Fishley and Woodbastick parishes), Coltishall, Wroxham
ONS Travel to Work Area: Norwich
Postcode districts: NR10, NR12, NR13

Jan Davis (Grn)
Stephen Heard (LD)
Julia Wheeler (Lab)
Fran Whymark (C)

May 2017 result C 1744 LD 588 Lab 315 Grn 162 UKIP 148
May 2013 result C 908 Ind 550 UKIP 543 LD 533 Lab 315
June 2009 result C 1788 Grn 603 LD 485 Lab 291
May 2005 result C 2096 Ind 1226 Lab 948 LD 863 Grn 224


Previewing the Lewisham East by-election

The Lewisham East by-election, a preview

House of Commons; caused by the resignation of Labour MP Heidi Alexander, who had served since 2010.

by Andrew Teale, 14 Jun 2018


Fifty-three weeks on from the snap general election and we come to the second parliamentary by-election of the 2017 Parliament, and the first in Great Britain. It’s also the first time in six months that Andrew’s Previews has had cause to visit London, as every councillor in the 32 London Boroughs was up for re-election last May so there have not been any by-elections in the capital so far this year. With your columnist being based in that unusually sunny part of the world (for the moment, touch wood), Greater Manchester, London was not high up my list of things to write about regarding the 2018 local elections, and I managed to deliver multiple pieces to Britain Elects on those polls without mentioning the capital once. Would that some commentators could have done likewise. Nevertheless it is legitimately London’s turn for the limelight this week.

General election vote share:


London has always been a cosmopolitan city, and the name Lewisham refers to an immigrant of an earlier age: a man from Jutland called Leof or Leofsa, who came over in the Jutish invasion of the late fourth century (or later) and made his home here. As did so many others in the last century and a half. Leof’s home – Lewisham – was still a rural area until the railway came in the 1840s, encouraging the rapid development of commuter housing in a district just six or seven miles from Charing Cross; in those days the area now covered by this constituency was part of Kent, before being incorporated into the County of London on its creation in 1889.

When the Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham was created in that year much of its area was still farmland, but the gaps were progressively filled in. The East constituency’s housing stock still predominantly dates from the nineteenth century; and by the 1930s, with the completion of the London County Council’s Downham estate, there was no more room left. The Downham estate still occupies much of the southern end of this constituency: developed in the late 1920s, it was considered a showpiece estate and described by Lewisham council as a “garden city”. Much of the estate’s original population was working-class people rehoused from substandard housing in places such as Rotherhithe and the East End, to the disgust of locals over the county boundary in Bromley who went so far as to build a wall to keep the riff-raff out. History doesn’t record whether Lewisham paid for the wall.

Further in is the constituency’s main commercial centre, Catford. Despite there being a large fibreglass sculpture of a cat here, the name actually refers to a cattle ford on the River Ravensbourne. Lewisham council is based in Catford, and is overseeing extensive redevelopment of the town centre.

To the east lie the railway suburbs of Grove Park and Hither Green, together with Lee which was one of the two parishes which merged to create Lewisham borough in 1889. Karl Marx lived in Lee for a time, and at the northern end of the seat is another area which, although for many years it has been the most affluent part of this constituency, has a radical political history. The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, Jack Cade’s rebellion of 1450 and the Cornish rebellion of 1497 all mustered at Blackheath. It’s easy to see why. To this day Blackheath is an area of high ground and open space with excellent communications: the Roman Watling Street and the modern A2 pass over the heath on the way to Canterbury and the Channel Ports, leading to the area being a haunt of highwaymen in the eighteenth century. If the Nazi Operation Sealion had ever come to fruition, Blackheath would have been the last line of defence before London.

The open space of Blackheath and easy distance from London led to strong associations with sport. By tradition this was the first place that golf was played in England; Kent played several first-class cricket matches on the heath in the eighteenth century; three Blackheath clubs were among the founder members of the FA in 1863; and the first rugby match between England and Wales was played here in 1881. Each April Blackheath comes to prominence as the starting point for the London Marathon.

However, the main industry on the heath in days gone by (if you discount the predations of highwaymen) was gravel extraction, which made a pretty penny for the landowner: the Lord of the Manor of Lewisham, the Earls of Dartmouth. And this is an appropriate point to start to consider those former MPs whom the winner of this by-election will tread in the footsteps of, for the first MP for a seat to bear the name “Lewisham” was William Legge, the 6th Earl of Dartmouth. A Conservative, Legge was first elected to Parliament in 1878 in an uncontested by-election for the predecessor seat of West Kent, and at this point in time he was generally known by the courtesy title of Viscount Lewisham. He had the traditional upper-class education: Eton, Christ Church Oxford, officer in the South Staffordshire Regiment; and the year before being elected to Parliament he had played first-class cricket for the MCC.

Viscount Lewisham took over the constituency that bore his name when it was created in the redistribution of 1885. He defeated the Liberal candidate Benjamin Whitworth, an outgoing MP who sought election here after his seat – Drogheda, in what’s now the Republic of Ireland – was abolished. Lewisham beat Whitworth in Lewisham by the margin of 58-42, and increased his majority to 69.5-30.5 the following year. The 1886 general election returned the Conservatives to power under Lord Salisbury, and Viscount Lewisham entered the government as Vice-Chairman of the Household. Under the rules in force then Lewisham had to get his government appointment confirmed by seeking re-election to the House, and nobody bothered to oppose him in the resulting by-election.

Viscount Lewisham succeeded to his father’s titles and entered the Lords in 1891. The resulting Lewisham by-election was held easily for the Conservatives by John Penn. Described as “one of the best-known Parliamentary golfers” with his own private course near North Berwick, Penn came from a business rather than an aristocratic background: he ran the family marine engineering firm of John Penn and Sons, although he wasn’t an engineer himself. So far, so Donald Trump. Penn easily won the 1891 by-election and the 1892 general election, and after that nobody bothered to oppose him for the 1895 and 1900 elections.

John Penn’s death in 1903 resulted in the third Lewisham by-election in as many decades. The 1903 by-election was contested, with the Liberals putting up a young Scottish barrister called James Cleland, who was a London county councillor for the borough and chairman of the LCC’s Parks and Establishment committees. Cleland, who would later serve as MP for Glasgow Bridgeton from 1906 to December 1910, and died in 1914 at the early age of 40, had the best Liberal result yet in Lewisham – 42.5% – but it wasn’t good enough to displace the Tories. Their winning candidate was Edward Coates, a stockbroker, Major in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment and noted art collector. Coates had a long career in the seat, easily weathering the Liberal landslide of 1906; he would go on to serve as chairman of Surrey county council and be appointed baronet.

The growing population of Lewisham meant that it was divided into two seats at the 1918 redistribution. Sir Edward Coates sought re-election in Lewisham West, leaving the way clear in East for the new Conservative candidate Lt-Col Assheton Pownall. Pownall, who was elected unopposed in 1918 with the Coalition’s coupon, had come from an engineering family; he was a London county councillor for Lewisham from 1907 to 1910 and had fought Rotherhithe in the two 1910 elections. He had served in the London Regiment during the Great War, and shortly after his election to Parliament was appointed as a military OBE. With a safe seat Pownall could throw himself into the work of Parliament; he gained a reputation for hard work on committees, and was knighted for his political service in 1926.

But by this time demographic changes were hard at work. The completion of the Downham estate fundamentally changed the character of Lewisham East, making Labour competitive. Pownall had a close shave in the 1929 election which brought Labour to power for the first time, holding his seat by just 402 votes over Labour candidate John Wilmot. Wilmot stood for this seat three times before getting into Parliament by winning the 1933 Fulham East by-election; he was a minister under Attlee before ending his days in the Lords. Labour went on to put up another future MP against Pownall, Freda Corbet (Camberwell North West 1945-50, Peckham 1950-Feb 1974) who stood here in 1935.

Sir Assheton Pownall was finally swept away in the Attlee landslide of 1945, as Labour defeated the Conservatives nationally. The first non-Conservative MP for a Lewisham constituency was one of the major figures of the Labour Party: none other than the outgoing Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison. Morrison, who had transferred here after fifteen years (with broken service) as MP for Hackney South, can justifiably claim to be one of the people who had the most impact on what London has become today. In 1931, as transport minister in the Macdonald Labour government, Morrison introduced the bill which set up the nationalised London Transport; and in 1934 he took over the most powerful local government job in the UK, Leader of the London County Council. As LCC leader Morrison had effectively forced central government to pay for a replacement Waterloo Bridge, and introduced the Green Belt to put a stop to the relentless expansion of the city. We are still working through the long-term effects of those decisions, as we are with one of the more dubious parts of Morrison’s political legacy: he was the grandfather of Peter Mandelson.

Morrison had run the 1945 Labour election campaign, and in the Attlee government became Deputy Prime Minster and Leader of the Commons; other than the Green Belt, his main legacy of that period was probably the Festival of Britain and the resulting redevelopment of the South Bank of the Thames.

The 1950 redistribution awarded a third seat to the Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham, and this was effected by dividing Lewisham East into two new seats, called Lewisham South and Lewisham North. Morrison moved to the South division, based on Catford, Hither Green and the Downham estate, which promised to be safe Labour and indeed was. In 1950 he defeated a future Tory MP, Frederick Gough (Horsham, 1951-64) who had won the Military Cross for action during the landing at Taranto in 1943. Herbert Morrison retired from the Commons in 1959 and passed his seat on to Carol Johnson, who had a majority of just 3,081 in his first election – the Tory candidate he defeated was John Hunt, who went on to serve for 33 years as MP for Bromley and then Ravensbourne. In 1964 Mr Johnson had a rather more comfortable win against another future Tory MP, Barney Heyhoe (Heston and Isleworth 1970-February 1974, Brentford and Isleworth Feb 1974-1992).

Lewisham South may have been a safe Labour seat, but Lewsham North was a completely different proposition. Based on Lee, Blackheath and Lewisham itself, it was won for the Conservatives in 1950 by Sir Austin Hudson, 1st Baronet, who returned to the Commons after losing Hackney North in the Labour landslide. Sir Austen did not have a safe seat: his majorities over Labour rose from 2,491 in the 1950 election to 3,236 in the 1955 election. He died in November 1956.

Sir Austin’s widow Peggy, the dowager Lady Hudson, later employed a butler called Roy Fontaine to work on the Hudson family’s estate in Dumfriesshire. Fontaine was not who Lady Hudson had thought he was: his real name was Archibald Hall and he was a career criminal who had taken the job in order to steal Lady Hudson’s valuables. He never did carry that crime out, deciding that he liked the job and the employer too much, and that was a good thing from Lady Hudson’s point of view. Archibald Hall became one of the UK’s most notorious serial killers, committing his first murder while in Lady Hudson’s service; his five victims included the former Labour MP for Accrington Walter Scott-Elliot and Walter’s wife Dorothy.

Fortunately Sir Austin Hudson’s death was not suspicious; unfortunately for the Conservatives it forced a by-election in a marginal seat. The 1957 Lewisham North by-election was duly lost to Labour’s Niall MacDermot, who came from a legal family – his grandfather Hugh MacDermot had been Solicitor-General and Attorney-General for Ireland, and his uncle Frank MacDermot had served in the Irish Dáil and Seanad in the 1930s and 1940s. MacDermot won the by-election with a majority of 1,110 on a swing of over 5%. He failed to hold on to the by-election gain, but returned to the Commons in 1962 by winning the Derby North by-election, was a junior Treasury minister under Harold Wilson, and later served for twenty years as secretary-general of the International Commission of Jurists.

As stated, Niall MacDermot lost his seat in the Macmillan landslide of 1959. The new Tory MP for Lewisham North was only 28 but was already a household name. Chris Chataway had made his name on the athletics track as a long-distance runner: he had paced Roger Bannister to the first four-minute mile in 1954, and later that year won a silver medal in the 5,000 metres at the European Athletics Championships, before breaking the world record for that distance at a London v Moscow athletics competition at White City. That race was televised across Europe and turned Chataway into a celebrity: it almost certainly won him the title of BBC Sports Personality of 1954, the first year in which the award was made. After completing his PPE degree at Oxford, Chataway briefly went into journalism – along with a young Robin Day he was one of ITV’s first two newsreaders – and then found a niche in politics, being elected to the London County Council in 1958 as one of the three councillors for Lewisham North. The following year he was in Parliament, defeating MacDermot with a majority of 4,613.

In office Chataway campaigned for refugees and became a junior education minister; but in 1964 his majority fell to just 343 votes and he lost his seat in the Wilson landslide of 1966. That didn’t stop his political career though; the following year Chataway became leader of the Inner London Education Authority before returning to Parliament by winning the Chichester by-election in 1969. He retired from politics in October 1974, going into banking and charity work, and serving as chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority. It says something for our honours system that it was that, rather than anything else in Chataway’s varied career, which secured his knighthood.

The new Labour MP who defeated Chataway in 1966 was Roland Moyle, the son of Labour MP Arthur Moyle (Stourbridge 1945-50, Oldbury and Halesowen 1950-64). Roland was a Greenwich councillor, barrister and industrial relations consultant. He did well to hold onto Lewisham North in the 1970 election, with the Conservatives cutting his majority from 2,363 to 1,027. That was, of course, a defeat for Labour nationally which came shortly after England had been knocked out of the World Cup; and it’s noticeable that this by-election has been scheduled before Gareth Southgate’s team have had a chance to blot their copybook in this year’s tournament.

By now London’s local government had been reformed, with the Deptford and Lewisham Metropolitan Boroughs merging in 1964 to form the London Borough of Lewisham. The redistribution implemented at the February 1974 election cut the expanded Lewisham borough from four constituencies to three, and that meant a recreation of the Lewisham East constituency and the abolition of Lewisham North and Lewisham South. Although the details have changed, the Lewisham East constituency has been roughly the same ever since.

Roland Moyle won the Labour selection for the new seat, and in the February 1974 election saw off then Ealing councillor, future Tory MP (Hendon South 1987-97) and MEP (London North 1979-89) and recently re-elected Barnet councillor John Marshall by the much healthier majority of 6,306. Moyle now joined the ranks of government, serving as a junior Northern Ireland minister in the final Wilson administration and as a health minister under Callaghan. In the 1979 election Moyle narrowly defeated another future Tory MP, Humfrey Malins (Croydon North West 1983-92, Woking 1997-2010) by 1,593 votes.

That small Labour majority spelt trouble with the rise of the Liberal/SDP alliance and consequent split on the left wing of British politics. In the 1983 election in Lewisham East Moyle stood for a sixth term of office as the Labour candidate; the SDP candidate was Polly Toynbee (yes, that Polly Toynbee); and the Tories decided to emulate Chataway by selecting another candidate in their late 20s who had proven themselves at the highest levels of sport. Colin Moynihan had been elected President of the Oxford Union in 1976, ahead of a promising young woman called Benazir Bhutto, and won a Blue for boxing against Cambridge as a bantamweight, but he made his name on the water. Moynihan coxed the Oxford crew to victory in the 1977 Boat Race, and won a silver medal in the 1980 Moscow Olympics as cox to the British men’s eight. After that he became a political advisor to the Foreign Secretary, Francis Pym, and won the Conservative nomination for the 1983 election in Lewisham East. With Moyle polling 36% and Toynbee 22% the left-wing vote was split, and Moynihan’s 40% of the vote gave him the win by 1,909 votes. He increased his majority in 1987 and appropriately became minister for sport, later transferring to the Department of the Environment as junior minister responsible for renewable energy.

In 1991 Moynihan’s half-brother Antony, the 3rd Lord Moynihan, died of a heart attack in the Philippines. Antony’s complex life and family situation – at the time he was thought to have had five wives and six children – meant it was not clear who should inherit his peerage but Colin might have a claim on it. The situation hadn’t been resolved by the time of the 1992 election, in which Moynihan lost his seat to Labour by 1,095 votes as the left-wing vote split resolved itself. The House of Lords eventually decided that Antony Moynihan’s two sons should not inherit: his son by his fourth wife was ruled out by a paternity test, while his son by his fifth wife was found to be illegitimate because Antony had never properly divorced his fourth wife. That left Colin Moynihan as the heir, and in 1997 he resumed his political career from the red benches as the 4th Lord Moynihan. In 1999 Moynihan became an elected hereditary peer, and from 2005 to 2012 he was chairman of the British Olympic Association. Lord Moynihan is only 62, so we may not have heard the last of him yet.

The Labour candidate who defeated Moynihan was Bridget Prentice, a teacher who entered the Commons at the same time as her then husband, Gordon Prentice (Pendle 1992-2010). Mrs Prentice became a Labour whip in 1995 and had a long career on and off at junior ministerial level. She made the Lewisham East seat safe in 1997, and Labour have not been seriously threatened here since. Prentice saw off two future Tory MPs: Philip Hollobone (Kettering 2005-) in 1997 and James Cleverley (Braintree 2015-) in 2005.

Prentice was reprimanded by the Parliamentary standards commissioner in 2008 for misusing her communication allowance, and didn’t seek re-election in 2010. That left the way clear for Lewisham councillor and deputy mayor Heidi Alexander to win the Labour nomination and the seat. Alexander was appointed shadow health secretary by Jeremy Corbyn and ran Sadiq Khan’s campaign in the 2016 London mayoral election. She resigned from the shadow cabinet in the wake of the EU referendum result, and is leaving the Commons to work for Khan as a deputy mayor of London, with responsibility for transport. An appropriate job for a constituency where the train is the most popular way of getting to work – with the exception of the Downham estate, which is poorly served by rail and has very high bus usage. Given that some of this constituency, particularly the Catford area, is affected by the issues with the new Thameslink timetable (issues which, let me point out, are a drop in the ocean compared to the appalling shambles which is Northern Rail), Alexander has got her work cut out in her new job.

Alexander’s successor will inherit a London constituency with a typically multicultural electorate. The 2011 census picked up significant numbers of residents born in Jamaica, Nigeria, Poland and Sri Lanka; and four of the seven wards in Lewisham East – Rushey Green, Catford South, Whitefoot and Downham – are in the top 100 in England and Wales for both black and mixed-race population. Rushey Green ward, covering Catford town centre, is number 7 on the mixed-race list at 9% and number 14 on the black list at 38% – for comparison, the ward’s White British population is under 30%. Catford South ward makes the top 30 on both lists, and Whitefoot ward is also majority BAME. Both Whitefoot and Downham still have high levels of social housing reflecting their history. By contrast, Blackheath ward is the most affluent part of the seat and clearly attracts urban professionals: a majority of its workforce hold degrees, a majority of its workforce are in managerial or professional occupations, and it is in the top 100 wards in England and Wales for the 30-44 age bracket.

You don’t see much of this reflected in Lewisham East’s local election results: at least, not these days. Ten years ago the political picture was very different, with the Lib Dems being competitive in Blackheath, Lee Green and the Downham estate wards and the Tories holding council seats in Grove Park. The Coalition put paid to that, and since 2014 Labour have held every council seat in this constituency. In last month’s Lewisham council elections Labour topped the poll with 51% across the seat; the Tories were in second with 17% and the Greens third with 15%. Those Lib Dems who are talking up their chances of a good result might want to reflect that they were fourth across the constituency only last month, with over half of their local election vote coming out of Blackheath and Lee Green wards. Going back slightly further to 2016, Alexander’s new employer Sadiq Khan carried this constituency in the London Mayoral election with 54% to 23% for the Conservatives; in the London Members ballot Labour led with 50%, to 17% for the Conservatives and 10% for the Green Party. These figures don’t include postal votes which were not broken down to ward level, but the picture with postal votes included is unlikely to be significantly different.

Those figures suggest that Labour should not have much to worry about in holding this by-election. The 2017 general election result gives further cause for optimism: Alexander got a 6% swing in her favour to defeat the Conservative candidate by 68% to 23%, with no other candidates saving their deposit.

So with little realistic possibility of a seat loss here, the Westminster and media circle appears to have indulged in their favourite, if interminable, game of seeing this by-election through the prism of the two great Westminster imponderables of our time: the future of Brexit and the future of Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour selection has therefore been closely watched through that filter. It produced Janet Daby, who since 2010 has been a Lewisham councillor for Whitefoot ward (on the Downham estate). She is the deputy to Lewisham’s elected mayor, Damian Egan; has previously worked in social care; and is the director of a project tackling food poverty on the Downham estate.

The Conservative candidate is Ross Archer, who comes hotfoot from the 2018 Lewisham mayoral election in which he was a rather distant runner-up; he came closer to being elected in the simultaneous Lewisham council election where he was runner-up in the Tories’ best ward in Lewisham borough, Grove Park. Archer is described as a local scout leader who works for a not-for-profit company, and his flagship policy appears to be to get Grove Park railway station transferred from Zone 4 to Zone 3 in Transport for London’s zonal pricing system. For those not familiar with London transport, this will make trips between the city centre and Grove Park cheaper.

Standing for the Lib Dems is Lucy Salek, who chairs a refugee charity and fought Southend West in the 2017 general election. The Green candidate is Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, a schoolteacher who is campaigning on air pollution issues. UKIP have selected David Kurten, who has been a member of the London Assembly since 2016. Maureen Martin is the candidate of the evangelical Christian Peoples Alliance, which finished last here in 2015 and 2017; in May she stood for election to Lewisham council in Lee Green ward, coming last out of eleven candidates.

This being a London parliamentary by-election, there are an awful lot of other also-rans. First alphabetically is Charles Carey, an independent standing on a single issue of free, comprehensive and up-to-date access to legislation. Massimo DiMambro is standing for the UKIP splinter Democrats and Veterans Party; he was UKIP candidate for Lewisham Deptford in the 2015 general election, and contested Downham ward in the 2018 Lewisham local elections, coming last out of fifteen candidates. Sean Finch is standing for the Libertarian Party, Patrick Gray for the Radical Party, Thomas Hall for the Young People’s Party and Howling Laud Hope for the Official Monster Raving Loong Party. Possibly more serious about their candidature is Mandu Reid of the Women’s Equality Party. Completing the fourteen-strong ballot paper – and that’s already an improvement on May’s local elections, in which she messed up her nomination and wasn’t on the ballot for her home Basildon council – is Anne Marie Waters of her For Britain party, which I shall charitably describe as another UKIP splinter. Waters was the UKIP candidate for this seat in 2015, finishing in third place.

Despite the media coverage given to Lewisham East, overall this looks like one of those polls that’s strictly for the purists, with little to get excited about for the casual observer. And yet there are two local polls today which you’ve heard nothing about in the media but which look on paper far more interesting. Turn to the next section and I’ll give you the lowdown…

Lewisham council wards: Blackheath, Catford South, Downham, Grove Park, Lee Green, Rushey Green, Whitefoot
ONS Travel to Work Area: London
Postcode districts: BR1, SE3, SE6, SE9, SE10, SE12, SE13

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah (Grn)
Ross Archer (C)
Charles Carey (Ind)
Janet Daby (Lab)
Massimo DiMambro (Democrats and Veterans Party)
Sean Finch (Libertarian Party)
Patrick Gray (Radical Party)
Thomas Hall (Young People’s Party)
Howling Laud Hope (Loony)
David Kurten (UKIP)
Maureen Martin (CPA)
Mandu Reid (Women’s Equality Party)
Lucy Salek (LD)
Anne Marie Waters (For Britain)

June 2017 result Lab 32072 C 10859 LD 2086 Grn 803 UKIP 798 Ind 355 CPA 228
May 2015 result Lab 23907 C 9574 UKIP 3886 LD 2455 Grn 2429 Lewisham People Before Profit 390 CPA 282
May 2010 result Lab 17966 LD 11750 C 9850 UKIP 771 Grn 624 EDP 426 Lewisham People Before Profit 332


LE2018: the results

Beam me up, Scotty!


Alyn & Deeside by-election preview

One by-election on Tuesday 6th February 2018:


Alyn and Deeside

National Assembly for Wales; caused by the death of Labour AM Carl Sargeant at the age of 49. Sargeant had represented Alyn and Deeside in the Assembly since 2003 and had served among the Welsh Ministers since 2007, originally as Chief Whip and latterly as Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children. Sargeant was dismissed from that position on 3 November 2017, following unspecified allegations about his personal conduct in the febrile atmosphere of the 2017 Westminster sexual scandals. Four days later, he was found hanged at his home, and the coroner heard that he was believed to have taken his own life. He leaves behind a wife, a son and a daughter.

We are sure you appreciate the anxiety and distress being caused to our client particularly as he is yet to receive any details of the allegations that have led to the decisions taken to date by the First Minister of Wales, the Labour Party in Wales and the Labour Party head office. There is the potential requirement to interview a number of witnesses of fact and with the Christmas period intervening and the ongoing delay is both prejudicial to the preparation of our clients case but also to his physical and mental wellbeing.
- Letter from Bowden Jones Solicitors to Welsh Labour, 6 November 2017

A difficult subject to write about for the first major by-election of 2018. We heard a lot in late 2017 about #metoo, a viral internet movement which went mainstream to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual harassment. It started with Harvey Weinstein, a high-profile film producer with a host of allegations against him, and spread from there.

Politics, of course, is not immune to sex scandals; indeed, quite the reverse. #metoo has resulted in a large number of scalps in the UK political scene, rivalling that of the Major government. Michael Fallon resigned as defence secretary over his past behaviour, while just before Christmas Damian Green was effectively sacked as First Secretary of State and Theresa May's deputy over allegations of sexually harassing behaviour and viewing pornography on a House of Commons computer. Junior minister Mark Garnier admitted instructing his parliamentary assistant to buy sex toys for his wife and a constituent, and lost his job at the Department for International Trade in January's reshuffle. In Holyrood, Mark McDonald resigned as the Scottish Parliament's childcare minister over inappropriate sexual behaviour. And lest you think that I'm only picking on government ministers, Labour MPs Kelvin Hopkins and Ivan Lewis remain suspended from the party over sexual harassment allegations.

This column is not going to defend anyone who may have sexually harassed someone. But, at the same time, these are serious allegations being made against people in political employment. Those accused have the right to expect a modicum of support and a duty of care from their party at the investigation or disciplinary stage - after all, that's one of the things unions are for. Clearly, in the Carl Sargeant case, something went badly wrong.

After his death, Sargeant's family released correspondence relating to Sargeant's suspension, including the solicitors' letter quoted at the head of this column. That was written the day before Sargeant took his life, with him facing investigation by the party, and the passages relating to Sargeant's "anxiety and distress" and "physical and mental wellbeing" look chilling in retrospect. The letter also makes clear that Sargeant did not know the detail of the allegations made against him. We still don't know that: the Welsh Labour Party investigation into Sargeant wound up after his death on the principle that there's no point disciplining a dead man.

Instead we have a series of investigations, to report at a later date, into how Sargeant's sacking was handled by the First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones; whether news of the sacking was leaked; and into wider claims of bullying within the Labour-controlled Welsh government. It will be interesting to see what the investigations come up with, but this column suspects that the full consequences from this tragedy have yet to play out.

That's for the future, and we must now turn to Alyn and Deeside. Even seasoned UK geographers will have trouble placing this constituency on the map, for its name reflects one of the old Welsh district councils which existed from 1974 to 1996. The name refers to two rivers. The Alyn rises in the Clwydian Hills and flows south-east through Mold to reach the Dee north-east of Wrexham. The Deeside part of the name is the core of the constituency and refers to the small towns which were once located on the Dee estuary.

Once, but not any longer. The Dee Estuary west of Chester has extensively silted up over the centuries, as a visit to the so-called "seafront" at Parkgate on the Wirral will testify. To the north-west of Chester the river was diverted during the eighteenth century into an arrow-straight artificial channel, leading to extensive land reclamation (the appropriately-named Sealand community) by a series of polders. That's caused some interesting boundary issues, mainly related to the fact that the Ordnance Survey, when it originally looked at the area centuries ago, had drawn a rather arbitrary line through the mud and sandbanks which existed then to represent the border between Wales and England. Although the land has changed the line has not, resulting in some very weird electoral boundaries particularly around the Deeside Industrial Park. Despite being on the opposite side of the Dee, the Industrial Park is administratively part of the community of Connah's Quay and covered - in a pattern which makes no sense whatsoever on the ground - by several Connah's Quay-based electoral divisions. Closer to Chester, the Welsh-English border famously bisects Chester FC's Deva Stadium.

It may surprise readers to learn that Connah's Quay is actually the largest town in Flintshire by population - larger than the county town Mold, larger than Buckley, larger than Holywell. There are reasons for that. Like many of the small towns in Alyn and Deeside, Connah's Quay is an industrial centre. The gas-fired Connah's Quay power station dominates the Deeside area, overshadowing even the impressive Flintshire Bridge. A cable-stayed structure, the Flintshire Bridge may be a bit of a bridge to nowhere but does carry the A548 North Wales Coast road, connecting Connah's Quay with the Deeside Industrial Park. The industrial park is one of the major employment centres of North Wales, taking in among other things the large Shotton steelworks, a major Toyota engine plant and the head office of Iceland supermarkets. It's no surprise that three of the four Connah's Quay divisions, two of the three Shotton divisions and Queensferry make the top 100 wards in England and Wales for the ONS "lower supervisory, technical" employment classification.

But that pales in comparison with one of the most high-profile factories in the UK. The small village of Broughton is home to a large aerospace factory, established during the Second World War for bomber production and later home to such favourite aircraft of quiz league question-setters as the De Havilland Comet and Mosquito. Broughton's aircraft factory is now owned by Airbus, and assembles the wings for all Airbus aircraft including the flagship "superjumbo" A380. Final assembly of the A380 takes place in Toulouse, to which Broughton's wings are transported by sea. The Airbus factory employs 6,500 people, so it is highly important to the constituency's economy, and a recent order from Emirates Airlines for more A380s could help to secure the factory for several years to come. Even the local football club - sadly relegated from the Welsh Premier League last year - is called Airbus UK Broughton. Both Broughton divisions are in the top 100 wards in England and Wales for the ONS "lower supervisory, technical" employment classification, with Broughton South coming in at number 11.

Lying inland is the constituency's other major town, Buckley. This was another town created by the industrial revolution, with its heavy clay soil and accessible coal measures leading to pottery, mining and brickworking industries. The town's accent still has influences from the immigrants from Liverpool and Ireland who came here in the nineteenth century to staff those industries. Today the main export from Buckley is cement from a large and notably ugly cement works.

Not exactly tourist central. For many visitors to north Wales, Alyn and Deeside is somewhere you pass through to get to somewhere more exciting, like Snowdonia, the beach resorts on the north coast or even the Irish ferry from Holyhead. Most of those visitors pass along the A494 road, which runs from the end of the motorway in England to meet the A55 - the main road through North Wales - north of Buckley. It's a dream to drive from the English border all the way to the Dee crossing at Queensferry, which is very clearly the point where the improvement money ran out - the westbound carriageway loses a lane and makes a handbrake turn to the right to squeeze onto the existing Dee bridge. (For those who ignore the warnings and go straight on, I hope your vehicle likes salt water.) Between the Dee and the A55 the road runs along Aston Hill, a congested two-lane dual carriageway with poor sightlines, steep gradients, a 50mph speed limit and a bad accident record. A rebuilding plan for this section was thrown out by the Welsh Government in 2008 due to local opposition and high costs, and the latest idea to try and improve the Aston Hill road is to avoid it altogether, by building a new road from the Flintshire Bridge to the A55 - which would at least end the "bridge to nowhere" gibe.

Possibly the most famous modern person associated with the constituency is the former England footballer Michael Owen, who lived in the area and bought an entire street in Ewloe for his extended family. Owen was eligible to play for England because - like many people in this constituency - he was born at the local maternity hospital, which is over the border in Chester. Saltney in particular is a part of Chester which has spilled over into Wales, and the census shows that this is the least Welsh constituency in Wales - in terms of the proportion of people born in the country. Perhaps not surprisingly, in three of the five Welsh Assembly elections to date Alyn and Deeside has returned the lowest turnout.

It wasn't always like this: eastern Flintshire was once noted for very high electoral turnout. There has been a constituency on roughly these boundaries since 1950 when Flintshire was divided into two constituencies. The county had previously been a single constituency since 1918 when the constituency of Flint Boroughs (covering eight towns and villages only one of which, Caergwrle, was in this seat) was abolished. Appropriately for an area which included Gladstone's home at Hawarden Castle, both Flintshire and the erstwhile Flint Boroughs were continuously Liberal-held from 1852 until 1924 when the Liberal MP Thomas Henry Parry lost his seat to the Conservatives. Parry had served since winning the Flint Boroughs by-election in 1913, and during the First World War served with distinction in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He was wounded four times in the war, once at Suvla Bay and three times at Gaza, and finished up with a DSO and the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. As with many veterans of the Gallipoli campaign, the peninsula cast a long shadow: Parry's war wounds rendered him unable to campaign in the 1924 election.

The Liberals recovered Flintshire from Tory MP Ernest Roberts in 1929, but their new MP Frederick Llewellyn-Jones found himself on the Simonite side of the 1931 split in the Liberal Party. Although Llewellyn-Jones was easily re-elected in 1931 on the Liberal National ticket against only Labour opposition, he retook the Liberal whip in 1932 - an action which did not go down well among the Flintshire Conservatives - and retired in 1935. And that was pretty much the end of the Liberal challenge in Flintshire, as the Conservatives' Gwilym Rowlands easily gained the seat in 1935. A former Rhondda urban district councillor and son of a colliery manager, Rowlands had fought several Valleys constituencies in the 1920s elections. He served for ten years without much distinction, standing down in 1945.

The 1945 election saw a political realignment in Flintshire as Labour had a strong result in the county for the first time. Their candidate Eirene Jones was only narrowly defeated by the new Conservative candidate Nigel Birch, who had a majority of 1,039. An Old Etonian who had served on the General Staff in World War 2, ending the war with an OBE and the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, Birch had a long parliamentary career which peaked under Eden and Macmillan when he was in the Cabinet as Air Secretary. Birch was translated to the Lords in 1970, ending his days with the title Lord Rhyl.

However, Nigel Birch now leaves our story. By 1945 the Flintshire constituency was by far the largest seat in Wales with over 93,000 electors, and the Boundary Commission divided it in two for the 1950 election. Birch sought re-election in the more Tory-inclined West Flintshire, clearing the way for Eirene White (as she now was) to win the industrial seat of East Flintshire. White had a good majority, 6,697 over the Conservatives on a turnout of 88% - an enormous figure by today's standards. A political journalist with the Manchester Evening News and the BBC before entering the Commons, White had been elected to the Labour NEC in 1947 and was one of the first female MPs for Wales.

That majority eroded over the years partly thanks to the withdrawal of the Liberals, but the high turnouts continued. In the 1959 Macmillan landslide White held onto East Flintshire by just 75 votes on a turnout of 86% - the ninth highest turnout in the UK. She increased her majority to 3,956 in the 1964 election on a turnout of 87% - the second highest turnout in the UK - and made the seat safe in the 1966 Wilson landslide, again with an 87% turnout. By now White was a junior minister in the Wilson administration, serving in the Colonial, Foreign and Welsh Offices.

Eirene White was translated to the Lords in 1970 - serving as Deputy Speaker of that chamber from 1979 to 1989 - and was replaced as MP for East Flintshire by Barry Jones, who won rather narrowly in the 1970 election before making the seat safe. Jones had served in the Royal Welch Fusiliers before becoming a teacher and president of the Flint County branch of the NUT. He had had a near-miss in the 1966 election, coming close to gaining Northwich from the Conservatives. In the two 1974 elections and 1979 he saw off a future MP - Alex Carlile, who was Liberal MP for Montgomeryshire from 1983 to 1997 and now sits in the Lords.

Jones had a scare in the 1983 Thatcher landslide - the first election under the modern name of Alyn and Deeside - when his majority fell to just 1,368 over the Conservatives. (Their candidate that year was Simon Burns, who would later serve for thirty years as MP for Chelmsford.) For most of the Kinnock leadership of Labour Jones was Shadow Welsh Secretary, although his only ministerial experience was from 1974 to 1979 when he was a junior Welsh Office minister. 1983 was Jones' last close result, and in 1997 he saw off a future Welsh Assembly member, Eleanor Burnham of the Lib Dems. That 1997 election was the first contest on the current boundaries of the Alyn and Deeside constituency, which survived the 2010 review unchanged.

Barry Jones retired in 2001 after thirty-one years' service, and now sits in the Lords as Lord Jones. He passed the Parliamentary seat on to Mark Tami who remains in situ as only the third MP for this seat since 1950. Tami had been head of policy for the Amicus union before entering Parliament, and most of his career has been spent on the Labour backbenches. Again he has had some scares - the Conservatives got within 2,919 votes in 2010 and within 3,343 in 2015. Despite speculation of a Conservative gain when the 2017 election was called amid Theresa May's huge poll leads, Tami increased his majority last June and now looks to have a seat which is safe enough: in 2017 he beat the Conservatives by 52% to 40%. At his first election in 2001 he saw off Conservative candidate Mark Isherwood, who has sat in the Welsh Assembly since 2003.

Strangely enough these close results have never been seen in the Welsh Assembly elections, in which Alyn and Deeside has been safe Labour throughout. Its first AM in 1999 was Tom Middlehurst, who handed over to Carl Sargeant in 2003. The most recent Senedd election was in 2016, when Sargeant had 46% to 21% for Mike Gibbs of the Conservatives and 17% for UKIP candidate Michelle Brown, who was elected from the North Wales UKIP list and has been
regularly courting controversy since.

The last Flintshire county elections were in May 2017, during the general election campaign. It's often the case in Wales that local elections aren't particularly helpful in clarifying the national picture, and this is true in Alyn and Deeside which at county level tends to be a battle between Labour and independent candidates. In vote terms Labour came out on top last May in the divisions making up this constituency but only narrowly: they had 43% of the vote to 41% for independents. The seat count - 22 for Labour, 13 for independents, 2 Tories and one Lib Dem - was more decisive but also reflects that Labour won five seats (in four divisions) unopposed. Since May Labour have held a by-election in Buckley Bistre West - the division which elected the Lib Dem councillor in 2017.

And so we finally come to this by-election, which is unusually being held on a Tuesday due to a Welsh Assembly rule that all vacancies should be filled within three months. Carl Sargeant died on 7 November, so today is the last possible date for the election.

Defending for Labour is Carl Sargeant's son Jack, from Connah's Quay. Just 23 years old and with a background in engineering, Jack Sargeant is seeking to continue his father's constituency work, be a voice for North Wales in the Assembly and seek justice for his father.

The Conservatives have selected Sarah Atherton. A former district nurse and social worker, Atherton lives in Gresford, near Wrexham, and sits on Gresford community council.

UKIP have decided not to nominate a candidate, ostensibly out of respect for Jack Sargeant.

Three candidates complete the ballot paper. The Plaid Cymru candidate is Carrie Harper, a Wrexham councillor. Standing for the Lib Dems is Donna Lalek, a former teacher and Broughton community councillor. Completing the ballot paper is Green Party candidate Duncan Rees, from Ruabon near Wrexham.

So that is the tragic story of the first Welsh Assembly by-election since Ynys Môn in August 2013. If Jack Sargeant successfully follows in the footsteps of his late father, he will become by far the youngest member of the Assembly - and he will also shore up the Welsh Government. Labour are short of a majority in the Assembly, holding 28 out of 60 seats plus this vacancy, and form a minority administration at Cardiff Bay in coalition with the single Liberal Democrat AM. A Labour hold in this by-election would make the Whips' task easier - but if Jack makes his first priority as an elected representative seeking justice for Carl, things could get very difficult very quickly for Carwyn Jones.

Picture of the Flintshire Bridge at sunset by Adam Tas (CC BY 2.0).

Sarah Atherton (C)
Carrie Harper (PC)
Donna Lalek (LD)
Duncan Rees (Grn)
Jack Sargeant (Lab)

June 2017 general election Lab 23315 C 18080 PC 1171 UKIP 1117 LD 1077
May 2016 result Lab 9922 C 4558 UKIP 3765 PC 1944 LD 980 Grn 527
May 2015 general election Lab 16540 C 13197 UKIP 7260 LD 1733 PC 1608 Grn 976
May 2011 result Lab 11978 C 6397 LD 1725 PC 1710 BNP 959
May 2010 general election Lab 15804 C 12885 LD 7308 PC 1549 BNP 1368 UKIP 1009
May 2007 result Lab 8196 C 4834 Ind 3241 PC 2091 C 1398 UKIP 1335
May 2005 general election Lab 17331 C 8953 LD 6174 PC 1320 UKIP 918 Forward Wales 378 Ind 215 Comm 207
May 2003 result Lab 7036 C 3533 LD 2509 PC 1160 UKIP 826
June 2001 general election Lab 18525 C 9303 LD 4585 PC 1182 Grn 881 UKIP 481 Ind 253 Comm 211
May 1999 result Lab 9772 C 3413 PC 2304 LD 1879 Ind 1333 Comm 329
May 1997 general election Lab 25955 C 9552 LD 4076 Referendum Party 1627 PC 738


What are council by-elections telling us?

TL;Dr: Recent council by-election results are telling us that the polls are pretty much spot on. By-election results to seats that were last up in 2014, 15 and 16 are now reflecting (catching up with) the changed state of public opinion in that there now exists a country where the two main parties for government are polling in the low-forties.

Over the course of the last few weeks and months we have had a boon of by-elections. Of the 79 council by-elections held since the general election, 30 have changed hands. Of that 30, thirteen have been gains made by Labour, six by the Tories, two by the Greens, three by the Liberal Democrats and the remaining six by independents and local parties.

The attention received regarding these by-elections has been unprecedented in recent months, and many a comment has been made about what these results mean for the state of what Britain thinks.

At present, the Labour and Tory gains we are seeing are simply a reflection of the general election result. Ward results, where the contests were last held in 2014, 15 and 16, are merely catching up with the changed state of Britain: a more two party country than what it once was in 2015 when Labour or the Tories were polling in the mid thirties. Now that they are both neck and neck in the forties, and with a general election result to set this shift in electoral stone rather than polling, so too should it be expected that council by-election results reflect that.

Though one ward is not entirely reflective of the entire constituency at large, and it should be said that local issues in local elections do have an impact, the recent by-election in a ward in the Weston Super Mare constituency saw Labour increase its share of the vote by 22pts on the 2015 local elections (with the absence of a popular independent candidate who took 23 per cent in 2015). This result is not too dissimilar to the general election result across the constituency, where Labour jumped 14pts.

Those attempting to make projections on local by-elections should anticipate much improved performances in the Labour vote on 2014, 15 and 16 when the party was polling in the low-to-mid-thirties.

Unless public opinion changes, we should expect further Labour gains - particularly in next year's London local elections - but note that they are indicative of little else but the validation of the general election result and the current state of the parties nationally.


For those that don't know, a council by-election is when a ward/division, featuring an electorate of on average a few thousand, has an unexpected contest caused either by the elected individual's death, resignation, disqualification or imprisonment. Our American audience will know by-elections (be they parliamentary or local) as special elections. Council by-elections can sometimes be fought with local issues taking a greater precedent than would be the case in parliamentary elections.


A note on the Sunderland Sandhill council by-election


Many a comment has been made about Sunderland’s Sandhill council by-election result from last night, about what it may or may not mean and whether it is indicative of something or nothing.

I was informed on Tuesday that the Lib Dems had been working the ward for three months, an abnormal length of campaigning for council by-election campaigns, and that it would be one of the wards keeping an eye on come Thursday night.

Ciarán Morrissey, a Liberal Democrat campaigner from the region who played a part in the campaign, said to me that he is “sceptical of narratives that say this [the Lib Dem gain] was because of Regrexit/Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn,” instead placing blame on the local council and pointing out their campaign focused on local issues rather than the national picture.

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“It was just old-fashioned groundwork. Heavily targeted literature plans, lots of literature, and lots of canvassing. Our messages were clear and were being read and believed, and we put out an absolutely huge volume of Focus, blue letters, etc., including a letter from Steve’s [the candidate] nana, who lives in the ward. We canvassed every day and kept returning to doors where we’d been told where to go, and kept this intensity up until polling day, having been at it since late November.”

Is it the case that the Liberal Democrats may now regularly be outgunning their opponents in manpower and literature when it comes to council by-elections? Perhaps. It doesn’t require confidants and scientific analysis to tell you the Lib Dems regularly go over and above what other parties do in election campaigns they think they can win in.

Is it the case that the Liberal Democrats are (re)gaining support, and so, logically, gaining council seats? Yes. Our poll of polls does note an uptick in support for them, but that alone does not explain the win in Sandhills, a seat they weren’t in contention for even at their height of popularity back in the 2000s.

Does the Lib Dem win in (Leave voting) Sunderland suggest Regrexit is driving votes to a pro-EU party? Very unlikely. National polling currently does not give Regrexit much credence. The subsamples (usual caveats apply) in national polls do note, however, that the Lib Dems are taking one in five of those that voted Remain in last year’s referendum.

My impression is the Lib Dems are in the process of successfully shaking off the negative reputation attained from the coalition years. Their ability to focus on local issues in, shocker, local council by-elections and campaigning hard is paying them dividends. Nationally, they are up in the polls but not by much.

For a better, clearer picture of how national public opinion is shaping up, keep an eye on our polling averages and the coming English, Welsh and Scottish elections of May this year. More on what is up for election soon!


With thanks to those cited on the ground in the area for providing valuable information.


2016's Council By-Elections, a roundup

When it comes to council by-elections, 2016 has been unquestionably a good year for the Liberal Democrats.

There have been 317 principal authority by-elections and deferred council contests held over the course of this year. Cornwall stands out as the authority with the most number of by-elections held, at seven.

Council by-elections happen for a number of reasons. From the passing away or resignation of the incumbent to disqualification and arrest, some come with more interesting stories to tell than others.

The Lib Dems made a net gain of 29 seats for 2016, taking home 52. The Conservatives won 106, down 33. Labour, too, suffered a net loss, winning 100 but being down seven. UKIP have a net loss of three, Plaid Cymru a net gain of three and the Scottish Nationalists break even, losing four and gaining four. A smattering of independents, minor parties and local groupings net ten.

Chart: Total council by-election wins by party in 2016

The Lib Dem success came mainly at the expense of the Conservatives. Of the 32 gains made, 22 came from the Tories, five from Labour. When charting the gains by date, 24 of the 32 were made following the referendum on EU membership.

PartySeats to defendSeats heldSeats lostSeats gainedNET
Conservative139895017-33
Labour107852215-7
Liberal Democrat2320332+29
UKIP13496-3
Green1-12+1
SNP7344-
Plaid Cymru33-3+3

Council by-election results in their bulk should not be taken with a pinch of salt or as an overruling reflection of national public opinion. It is safe to say however that a trend has developed with regards to a ‘Lib Dem fightback’ but we should be cautious about jumping to conclusions. Whether the Liberal Democrat success is down to a shift in public opinion or because the party is commendable at focusing resources on by-election campaigns is yet to be seen. Our polling model does show a slight uptick in national support for the party and of the last 10 polls, two have them in double figures.

There will be a better opportunity at drawing conclusions come May of next year where there will be council elections in England (much of the shire authorities), Scotland (all ups) and Wales (all ups).

You can find every headline result of council by-elections held during 2016 in our summary sheet here. Please direct any spotted errors or omissions to our contact page.


Edited 28/12: Article edited to account for numerical error. Conservative council by-election holds originally listed to be 87 when in fact 89.